- Ravi Swami
"Tove", Dir: Zaida Bergroth, 2020
Watching "Tove", a biopic on a formative part of the life of the children's author and creator of the "Moomins", Tove Jansson, proved to be a frustrating experience, not because of the film itself but because of some complicated technical issues around the choice of streaming service.
Initially released last year in the U.K on BFIPlayer as part of their LGBT season, partly as a result of the COVID pandemic, it is now enjoying a limited run in selected London cinemas and is also available to rent on Apple TV hosting BFIPlayer content and of course BFIPlayer itself. However, the Apple TV version has carelessly omitted subtitles for the film, which is in Swedish and Finnish (and French) meaning the only option is to watch the film via an internet browser on the BFIPlayer website or on mobile devices using the BFIPlayer app, and this version *is* subtitled in English.
I have a smart TV that allows for internet browsing and screen-sharing via a mobile device, so, frustrated at not being able to watch it on BFIPlayer hosted by Apple TV (I did try...) and after having already forked out a few quid for the rental, I switched to BFIPlayer online and logged into my account and rented the film there.
The next problem was that BFIPlayer allows a maximum of 3 devices on which to watch their content, in my case an Ipad and the (Samsung) Smart TV - in the latter case it must have registered my purchase of the film on the Apple TV portal, so that was one device, and then I tried to watch it via my iPad (after *also*( logging in to my BFIPlayer account) with the intention of using screen-sharing to view it on the Smart TV. Why, you're thinking if you can watch it on the Smart TV via an internet browser ?.
Well, BFIPlayer blocked the content with an error message when viewed on the Smart TV browser and I had then to go through the whole rigmarole of creating a new password to login to my account (the email required for this goes to my spam folder - very helpful) and then deleting all the registered devices. BFIPlayer takes a few hours for these changes to register so watching the film had to be delayed as a result.
I was close to giving up on the idea until I was able to access the BFIPlayer hosted version on my iPad and watched half the film before deciding to watch the rest on the following evening, this time with screen-sharing enabled and on the Smart TV - it may be convenient under certain circumstances but watching a film with an iPad propped up on your knees soon becomes a bit of a pain.
"Tove" is tinged with an atmosphere of Nordic gloom as a young aspiring painter, Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti) strives to establish herself in the Finnish art world at a time when Finland was overshadowed by the threat of Fascism during WWII. Her parents, both well-known and established artists - a sculptor (father) and noted Finnish stamp designer (mother) - the former dismissive and the latter encouraging, nonetheless allow her the freedom to leave the security of the family home to pursue her goal.
Coupled with striving to be a respected artist in her own right is a desire to be open to various experiences, in this case to do with her sexual identity. She meets the husband of one of her circle of influential friends who are in an open marriage, Atos Wirtanen, (Shanti Roney) at a party and embarks on a brief affair with him, but without any intention of formalizing what is already a complicated relationship.
Later, at an exhibition of her paintings, she meets Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen) the daughter of the mayor of Helsinki and an up and coming theatre director who asks her to design an invitation to a diplomatic event after seeing the humorous drawings that she produces for various publications, most notably the Socialist-leaning, anti-Fascist, "Garm" where she first revealed the Moomin characters, initially as a signature and later, as an on-going device in her satirical illustrations.
Tove herself views her illustration sideline simply as a way to pay the rent on her apartment studio while her paintings are the focus of all her energies.
At the diplomatic event hosted by her father the mayor, Vivica makes a pass at Tove and this awakens her curiosity such that the two embark on an affair that goes beyond simply satisfying her curiosity.
However, Bandler, rich and influential in Helsinki's social circles, is a free spirit who doesn't fully acknowledge that Jansson is falling in love with her and Tove is left bereft. When she discovers that Bandler is conducting several affairs with different women she feels betrayed until Bandler tries to offer an olive branch in the form of staging one of her published Moomin stories as a play for children, which proves to be a resounding success.
Later the two meet by chance in Paris and while they spend the night together, Tove has decided that their affair is over, having been recently introduced to the woman who would become her lifelong companion, Tuulikki Pietilä (Joanna Haartii), a successful graphic artist, and we then follow her reluctant path from unsuccessful painter to world famous children's author and illustrator after signing a 7 year deal with the British "Evening News" newspaper to produce a daily Moomin strip cartoon.
The film ends with Tuuliki visiting Tove in her apartment, where she shows Tuuliki her latest painting, a self-portrait where her face has been left deliberately blank and where she describes herself as a "beginner painter".
The film has many scenes of sexual intimacy that might appear shocking if you are a fan - as I am - of her Moomin books, though she did also write some later novels aimed at an adult audience, especially in light of the fact that Jansson's sexual orientation was kept under wraps until after her death and the film seeks to draw out the parallels between her life, the people in it, and the characters that populated her best known novels and comic strips, based in large part on two excellent biographies.
As such she is now considered an icon amongst the LGBT community and somewhat ahead of her time in her boldness, perhaps to the extent that some would associate her books too closely with her life, finding subtext running throughout, though in the few interviews that can be found online she denies, for example, that the character of Moomintroll, the central Moomin character of a lot of the novels, is completely based on her own personality but rather a composite drawn from her social circle.
The characters of "Thingummy and Bob", who speak their own muddled language, are clearly a reference to herself and Vivica Bandler as two "outsiders" with a treasured secret and the "Mymble" was an invented coded reference for Jansson and Bandler's lesbian relationship and who appears in the Moomin books as, paradoxically, a fecund mother figure surrounded by lots of children via different partners.
Vivica Bandler is described by Jansson as a beautiful dragon that can never be captured or owned and indeed the short story "The Last Dragon In the World" that features in Jansson's "Tales From Moominvalley" - the first Moomin book that I read and an object lesson in world-building - is a nod towards her relationship with Bandler.
Since the turn of the millennium and following the death of Jansson in 2001, her creation of Moomin has grown into a juggernaut of merchandise, theme parks, theme cafes, TV series (I briefly worked on the first series) and street names in Helsinki to the extent that it is now considered Finland's greatest cultural export, which is quite remarkable for cartoons that Jansson herself soon tired of writing and drawing and passed onto her brother Lasse / Lars Jansson to continue.
It depends upon your point of view if you choose to see her best known works as loaded with subtext about her personal life but for me they speak universally and with a great deal of depth and understanding about people, and outsiders or marginalised personalities in particular, in a way that makes a lot of literature aimed at children seem anodyne by comparison, besides which, next to perhaps JRR Tolkien, few authors have created such well-defined imagined worlds and compelling characters.
As far as biopics go, I'm generally not a huge fan of the genre since they can be hit and miss affairs and where "Tove" is concerned there is the sense that it is just another facet of a merchandising phenomenon that now has a global reach and where the books themselves have been a little sidelined in favour of the numerous peripheral reinterpretations and spin-offs.
That said, it could easily have tread a safe path of focussing on her life as a graphic artist on the Moomin comic strips and books rather than the honest and bold depiction that it is of how closely an artist's life can be intertwined with their work, while never drifting entirely into being aimed exclusively at an LGBT audience and risking alienating those who enjoy her work without that context, as a result.
"Tove", Dir: Zaida Bergroth, 2020
Apple TV / BFIPlayer